Julia Gillard "on the menu": Three cheers for a bit of in-your-face, no-frills sexism

The party fundraiser menu that offered to "serve up" parts of Australian PM Julia Gillard was offensive, no doubt about it. But it's refreshing to see some honest, in-your-face sexism for a change, rather than the kind that flies under the radar.

Hooray for Mal Brough and his Liberal party fundraiser menu of boorish bigotry! At long last, we get to see a bit of honest sexism in action! Admittedly, it’s not all that impressive – just some lazy mockery of Australian PM Julia Gillard because she’s got wimmin’s bits (snigger) – but at least it makes a change. Enough of all that vague is-it-isn’t-it sexism that haunts so many women throughout their dealings with “enlightened” men. Here’s some of the real stuff, stuff that can’t be shrugged off with “well, it’s evolution” or “it’s because you have babies” or “it’s only banter”. With sexism like this you know where you are.

One doesn’t have to hold Julia Gillard aloft as a “feminist hero” to support her claim that she’s a victim of straightforward misogyny. Do male politicians get served up as metaphorical pieces of meat, their sexual organs ridiculed and dissected? Do they live in fear of what Harriet Harman might do with a chipolata? I think not. Regardless of whether Gillard has any of these attributes, there’s nothing wrong in having “small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box” – but there’s definitely something wrong in reducing a woman to this alone, regardless of her politics. 

And yet a bit of me thinks it could be worse. Most sexism flies under the radar or rather, we see it but we manage to explain it away. At least when someone is openly sexist we’re offered a means of restarting a debate which those in power – mostly male – have long since declared closed. Having been announced “winners“ in the battle for equality we’re usually expected to slink off home while the men carry on talking. Yet just every now and then, the fragility of our victory is exposed in a way that very few people can deny (still, best to not over-react, ladies. You don’t want to be accused of playing the “gender card” since that’ll mean you’re back in the wrong even more swiftly than usual).

All forms of sexism are rubbish, but I can’t help feeling barefaced chauvinism is less rubbish than the other forms. More often than not, we experience prejudice but there’s nothing we can say, let alone do. I suspect men like Brough have no idea of the degree to which women end up telling themselves this or that “didn’t count” as proper sexism. It makes life more bearable when you’re powerless anyhow. If you’re just a woman to begin with, at least don’t be a whiney woman who wastes her time blaming the patriarchy for everything or indeed anything. Just work on those alternative explanations. After all, that’s what everyone else is doing. 

We know that some forms of sexism – and other forms of prejudice - are completely hidden from the victim; the way someone’s assessment of a CV might change depending on the name at the top, for instance. The rest of the time, you half-know that prejudice is there but it’s embedded in so many other things - flawed human interactions, financial dependencies, personal insecurities – that it would take a huge amount of courage and conviction to do anything about it. After all, how can you truly know what’s going on? Unless you are a perfect human being, how can you strip out the sexism and hold it up for independent analysis? Sure, you’re not being treated fairly – but perhaps you’d still be held in low esteem even if that wasn’t the case. The actual impact of an individual instance of sexist behaviour is hard to measure. It tends to be a tainted specimen. “Reasonable” sexists know this – and so too do their victims.

There is almost always a reason why sexism isn’t sexism. It’s “just his background, just the way he talks, he didn’t mean it like that, silly you for taking offence”. Or maybe “it was like that in the seventies, a different culture, you can’t judge these things by your standards”. Or perhaps “the women don’t put themselves forward, it’s not our banter that’s to blame, just their failure to assert themselves”. Or “we take ever complaint seriously… apart from the complaints about the complaints that we didn’t take seriously at all”. The list is goes on and on.

Part of the work of feminism remains teasing this out, identifying sexism for what it is, showing that even if it appears to be compromised by real life it’s still worth challenging, if not in a court of law, then at least in terms of how people think and feel. It’s not enough to persuade people they aren’t being discriminated against if they’re still being left at a disadvantage. It’s not enough to assume you’re acting as if all things were equal when you can’t be bothered to try and make them so. And thus, while it’s a strange relief to see a bit of in-your-face, no-frills sexism once in a while, let’s keep on questioning any act that has some basis in the belief that women are inferior. This conversation needs to continue even when sexism isn’t handed to us on a plate. 

Julia Gillard. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.